"No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body."
American nurse and activist; b. Margaret Louise Higgins in Corning, New York 1879-09-14, d. Tucson, Arizona 1966-09-06.
Sanger pioneered family planning by means of birth control in the United States. The sixth of eleven children born to a nonconformist Catholic family, she identified the excessive number of pregnancies as the cause of her mother's premature death. Being a nurse on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, she had a first-hand view of the problems created by a combination of poor health care, unwanted pregnancy and general poverty, not least of all the permanent threat of pregnancy hanging over a woman's head like the sword of Damocles. In 1902 she married William Sanger who was a rather bohemian type and they became part of a circle of intellectuals and political activists that included individuals such as Emma Goldman. Her experiences as a nurse, combined with her contact with socialist ideals spreading among the working class of her time, made her an outspoken proponent of birth control despite the draconian Comstock Law which classified any communications on the subject as obscene.
From her autobiography:
"Pregnancy was a chronic condition among the women of this class. Suggestions as to what to do for a girl who was "in trouble" or a married woman who was "caught" passed from mouth to mouth--herb teas, turpentine, steaming, rolling downstairs, inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, shoe-hooks. When they had word of a new remedy they hurried to the drugstore, and if the clerk were inclined to be friendly he might say, "Oh, that won't help you, but here's something that may." The younger druggists usually refused to give advice because, if it were to be known, they would come under the law; midwives were even more fearful. The doomed women implored me to reveal the "secret" rich people had, offering to pay me extra to tell them; many really believed I was holding back information for money. They asked everybody and tried anything, but nothing did them any good. On Saturday nights I have seen groups of from fifty to one hundred with their shawls over their heads waiting outside the office of a five-dollar abortionist.
"These were not merely "unfortunate conditions among the poor" such as we read about. I knew the women personally. They were living, breathing, human beings, with hopes, fears, and aspirations like my own, yet their weary, misshapen bodies, "always ailing, never failing," were destined to be thrown on the scrap heap before they were thirty-five. I could not escape from the facts of their wretchedness; neither was I able to see any way out. My own cozy and comfortable family existence was becoming a reproach to me."
To put this in a socio-historical context: If unwanted pregnancy was not a nice thing, neither was the risk a woman would take in those days in visiting one of those five-dollar abortionists, even more if they didn't have the five dollars and tried to abort themselves. It's an unpleasant procedure even with modern medical technology, how much more so in a back-alley quack's "office.". Procedures were performed under dismal conditions, often by poorly trained people and death from infection or blood loss was a tangible possibility. Nevertheless, driven by desperation, thousands upon thousands of women took their chances rather than put themselves through the strain of a pregnancy that not only was risky anyway due to the poor conditions they lived in but also would just add to a family they were already incapable of supporting. Many of them paid for this choice with their lives. Society and the law did not grant a woman the right of choice--those who took it were on their own.
Sanger's first public writing dealt with the subject of venereal disease as part of a column called "What Every Girl Should Know" that was published in 1912 and didn't take long to fall foul of the censors. She began to perceive the necessity of birth control as a means of liberating women from the physical and economic slavery that came with continuous childbearing. In March 1914 she published the first issue of the militant feminist monthly called The Woman Rebel. Three issues of this publication were banned by censors before, in August that year, Sanger was arrested for violations of the Comstock Law, a federal offence. She jumped bail and two months later sailed from Canada to England under an assumed name.
While in England, where the climate was much less restrictive, she absorbed new theories and ideas, as well as learning about the practical idea of the diaphragm at a clinic in Holland. During her absence William Sanger was arrested and jailed for 30 days for distributing leaflets she had left in the US. Margaret returned to New York keen on the publicity her trial would generate. However, the death of her daughter convinced prosecutors to drop the case rather than risk the publicity of putting a bereaved mother on trial. Instead, Sanger toured the States to promote her ideas, getting arrested in several cities, and returned to New York to open the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn. The clinic lasted nine days before it was raided and Sanger spent her own 30 days in jail.
This time she got the publicity she wanted and with it she got a number of wealthy supporters of her cause. During the course of her appeals against the conviction an appellate court opened a loophole for doctors to provide women with information on birth control for medical reasons. This let her open a doctor-staffed clinic in 1923 with women doctors and largely funded by her wealthy second husband, industrialist James Noah Slee. In 1917 she hit the presses again with the Birth Control Review and in 1921 she launched the American Birth Control League.
After women were enfranchised in 1920, a move which Sanger opposed, considering it premature, support for her birth control movement as part of a general drive for female emancipation waned and she made a pact with the devil in the form of the eugenics movement of the 1920s. This association would cost her dearly in the eyes of history. Indeed, some of her writings reflected radical, later reviled, ideas put into practice on a smaller scale in the US and more notably by socialist governments in northern Europe and later the National Socialists in Germany. By the late 1920s and as her views were adopted by a more conservative middle class she became too radical for the mainstream of her organisation and resigned from its leadership in 1928. She remained an active campaigner through the 1920 and 1930s, often travelling abroad to lecture on birth control.
In 1942 Sanger was living in semi-retirement in Tucson but the end of World War II refocused her attention on the issue of overpopulation. She became active in the movement again and in 1952 became the first president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation. By the time she retired in 1959 it had grown to be the most prominent non-governmental organisation in its field.
She never stopped looking for cheaper, simpler and more effective means of birth control. She helped smuggle European contraceptive devices and later arranged for their manufacture in the US and in the late 1950s was there to witness the invention of the Holy Grail of birth control - the Pill. She also campaigned on the legal front and 1936 saw the exemption of doctors from provisions of the Comstock Law. Shortly before her death the United States Supreme Court legalised birth control for married couples.
Controversial or not, Margaret Sanger was one of the most effective and indomitable activists and pioneers of the 20th century.
Many, most notably Esther Katz (New York University)